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Far North
Marcel Theroux
Faber & Faber paperback �12.99

review by Jonathan McCalmont

Marcel Theroux's Arthur C. Clarke award-nominated Far North is a novel that owes a large debt to three different books. The first two are obvious: they are Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006) - from which Far North borrows both its post-apocalyptic iconography and its melancholic atmosphere - and Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic (1971) - from which Theroux's novel takes its literalisation of metaphors for hope. However, Theroux's less obvious debt is to David Hume's A Treatise On Human Understanding (1748). It is here that Hume first articulates what would become known as the 'bundle theory of personal identity'. According to this theory:

"The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations. There is properly no simplicity in it at one time, nor identity in different; whatever natural propension we may have to imagine that simplicity and identity."

In other words, there is no fundamental self. No enduring bedrock or essence to who we are. Instead, what we think of as our 'self' is in fact simply a collection of ever-changing perceptions and cobbled-together ideas. The self is in a constant state of flux, much like the theatre, and just as it makes no sense to talk of a play in terms of people standing in fixed places discussing specific things; it makes no sense to look at the self in such rigid and essentialist terms. Indeed, Far North is a novel about the constant death and renewal not only of the self, but of human society and nature.

Born into a group of religious Americans who decided to turn their backs on civilisation in order to build a new life in Siberia, Makepeace is an intensely practical person. In the book's opening chapters, Makepeace is eking out a living in the abandoned remains of a town. The last resident and the last law-giver, Makepeace coolly guns down a Chinese refugee who appears to be looting the empty houses in search of something to burn. So far, so familiar...

The opening chapters of Far North read like David Brin's The Postman (1985), or S.M. Stirling's Dies The Fire (2004): the story of a 'competent man' - a survival machine. A ruthless pragmatist perfectly suited to a broken and disfigured world; a walking, talking 'selfish gene'. But then Theroux pulls the rug out from beneath us in a way that drives home just how much baggage we bring with us to this kind of story: Makepeace is a woman. And so is the Chinese refugee she just gunned down in the street. This little piece of literary theatre not only puts the reader on the back-foot, it also draws our attention to the character of Makepeace. If Makepeace is not Viggo Mortensen, Mel Gibson, or Kevin Costner, then who is she? Well, therein lies the book's central question.

Far North is a strangely angular read. It is forever shuffling us between real-time first person narration, flashbacks, and Makepeace's frequent, elegant and spectacularly lucid observations about the nature of the world and humanity's place in it. Observations like:

"I thought: what a piece of work man is! What can't we do when we have a mind to? I feel a kind of awe at my ancestors, living surrounded by more kinds of knowledge than will fit inside any one man's head. You can say, as the herders do, that they overcomplicated their lives and that made them weak. Or you can just marvel at their ingenuity and hope that what they did once can be done once more." [page 44]

And:
"I lay down to sleep thinking that as much as I missed what was gone, maybe this was the best thing: for the world to lie fallow for a couple of hundred years or more, for the rain to wash her clean. We'd become another layer of her history, a little higher in the soil than the Romans and the people that built the pyramids. Yes, Makepeace, I thought, maybe one day your mandible will show up under glass in a museum. Female of European origin. Note the worn incisors and the evidence of mineral deficiency from a poor and unvaried diet. Warlike and savage. And beside it some potsherds." [page 184]

Reading these two passages it is possible to detect a tension and a change. Early in the book, Makepeace is wide-eyed about the accomplishments of humanity but by the end of the book, she is more fatalistic and content to see us drift away as a species. However, this is not to say that Far North is about the loss of Makepeace's idealism and descent into despair. In fact, Makepeace descends into despair quite early in the book but she pulls herself out of it. Indeed, just as McCarthy's The Road was held together by a cycle of loss, deprivation and gain, Far North is held together by a series of grand beginnings that end badly and seemingly final endings that never quite hit home. As Makepeace tracks a plane across the taiga, encountering bizarrely introverted religious cults, charitable slavers, and the remains of once-futuristic cities, she is constantly starting over and her observations upon the world around her shift so as to coincide with where she stands and who she is at any given moment.

Indeed, while it would be accurate to describe Far North as a character-focused work, it is not a book that contains what one would think of as traditional character arcs. This is partly due to the fact that Makepeace spends most of the story either physically or psychologically isolated, and partly due to the fact that the novel is written from the first-person perspective. First-person narratives tend to make you privy to the narrator's thoughts and feelings at the expense of the kind of detached awareness of the world that you get from a third-person perspective. This is why first-person narratives tend to be popular in detective stories such as the works of Raymond Chandler: the distance from the subject matter created by the narrative mode is what creates the mystery.

However, despite allowing you intimate access to a character's internal processes, first-person narratives do tend to struggle to communicate who the narrator really is. This is why first-person narratives can frequently feature unreliable narrators or acts of literary theatre such as the revelation in both Iain M. Banks' Use Of Weapons (1990), and Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World (2008), that the narrator was not who we thought he was. Indeed, character-focused first-person narratives such as F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925), and Emily Bront�'s Wuthering Heights (1847), tend to refrain from using the principle character as a narrator. Mr Lockwood and Nick Carraway are close enough to the central characters to be able to comment insightfully upon their actions but they also allow those central characters enough space in which to define themselves through their actions.

This also explains why some detective novels such as Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories and Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries are narrated not by the detectives but by their sidekicks. First-person narratives are wonderful at describing feelings, impressions and all the other pieces of intellectual detritus that makeup our stream of consciousness, but the form is frequently too close to those feelings and impressions to allow a clear image of the narrator to emerge.

Indeed, one of the things that was so revolutionary about Marcel Proust's use of stream-of-consciousness narration in In Search Of Lost Time (1913), was that it broke with the traditions of 19th century writing by moving the focus away from plot and character and onto the minutiae of experience and memory. This means that Far North is a novel animated by a terrible tension between its form and its subject. This tension means that, for all of Makepeace's introspection and clarity of thought, we will never get a clear idea of who she is. The novel's narrative mode ensures that there might as well not be a 'real' Makepeace. This is the true meat of the novel. It is where the book's technical brilliance and intellectual meat ultimately reside.

One of the things that is quite disconcerting about Far North is the fact that it is emphatically not a work of dystopian fiction. In fact, it is not really post-apocalyptic. The world of McCarthy's The Road is so utterly dead and dried out of all hope of recovery that the details of a father's relationship with his son take on an almost allegorical capacity for explaining how it is that people living in such a world are capable of getting up in the morning and refraining from blowing their brains out. When the father suggests that his son might well be a god, it is impossible not to take such fantastical talk seriously and, in light of such talk, a minor moment of tension in which an orphaned child decides to trust some strangers suddenly holds the entire world in balance.

Much like The Road, Far North is affected by a series of rises and falls, endings and beginnings as Makepeace repeatedly reaches the end of the road only to discover that it actually goes on a little bit further. However, because Theroux never makes this novel's darker moments seem all that black, the moments of hope and of thought about the future do not stand out as they do in The Road. This is due in large part to Theroux's refusal to engage in any kind of moral editorialising. 'The End' is not the basis for satire as in Mark Wernham's Martin Martin's On The Other Side, or for political engagement as in Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl. It is simply The End. Shit happens. As a result, Far North's endings and beginnings do not seem like genuine endings and beginnings, they do not fit grand dramatic arcs. Instead, they seem like part of the natural ebb and flow that make up a world in a constant state of change.

Makepeace and the world of Far North are cut from the same Humean cloth: neither of them has some true essence buried beneath the surface. Neither of them has a deep structure. Both are changeable. Both have always changed. Both will always change. The identity of both the world and Makepeace are captured and completed in the moment. It makes no more sense to talk about the true nature of Makepeace's world than it does to talk about the true nature of Makepeace and, as Hume points out, talking about the true nature of Makepeace's self would be like trying to describe a work of theatre by describing one moment of it: there is properly no simplicity in them at one time. After a book full of temporary worldviews and selves she ends on something approaching the truth:

"The cranes lurch south each fall. Each year the wilderness reclaims a little more. Each year taiga riots on another tract of the city. Each month that goes brings closer the time of your departure." [page 287]

The real truth about the world is that it does not end because it does not begin. Much like years they begin and end every second and every day. It is only when we forge bonds to a particular moment, a particular image that starts to decay the second we trap it in the amber of our cognition, that they start to acquire meaning and appear substantial. There is no year. There is no world. There is no self. There is only what there is. With the truth finally within her grasp, Makepeace allows it to get away. It slips away because she thinks about it. She reifies it. She mistakes the dead thing in amber for the real world and becomes attached to it. She struggles with sentimentality:

"And once you've left I see it going like this: five or ten years after, or maybe sooner if I'm lucky, the horse will throw me on a cold morning, or the stove'll catch while I'm sleeping, or I'll just keel over among the cabbages - I won't have the puff I used to and it's heavy work chopping those stalks out. Down I'll go, nose in the dirt, and breathe my last.
    There's not one iota of fear in me about it. I wouldn't have you stay for anything. But I can't think too hard about the world I've bequeathed to you, or the gulf between your childhood and mine, or I start to feel guilty for it."
[page 287]

As impressive as the book's central philosophical experiment may be, it is not all that is on offer. The technical triumph that is the endlessly protean Makepeace sits at the heart of the book but Theroux's methods filter outwards. In every corner of Far North you find people, things and ideas softened and blurred by the passage of time and the weight of circumstance. Characters that initially appear archetypal change to reveal unexpected natures, big science fictional ideas are beautifully diluted producing a version of the Strugatskys' Zone that is not some mystical alien artefact but rather a modern city. A city that seems alien and filled with treasure and promise simply because it is what we would consider modern. There is also a real beauty to the way Theroux handles the end of the world: it comes not as a flash in the sky or a failing of crops but as a slow drift of people. People so grey that they waft through Makepeace's home town like ghosts. Utterly unreal, almost immaterial and yet deeply unsettling because, as Makepeace puts it:

"Until is came staggering into the drugstore, I'd never given much of a thought to the world outside my town" [page 95]

Far North is an intensely clever and beautifully written work that explores our ideas about death while also questioning why it is that we hang on for so long to something as fragile and intangible as the present. It is an exceptional work of science fiction.

Far North by Marcel Theroux



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